Ever wondered where Minnesota’s cities got their names?

Here are a few factoids to put in your place-name trivia bank: Winona is the Dakota word for “first-born daughter.” Hibbing is named after a businessman and iron ore prospector. Eylsian is named after the Greek myth of Elysium. Biwabik means “iron” and “valuable” in Ojibwe. Combine the Dakota word for “water,” which is Mni, and the rough Greek definition for “city” and you have Minneapolis.

If you’re from one of those cities you have some pretty decent fodder for whenever you get to that post-pandemic dinner party. However, here’s a tip: In case you have forgotten rules of dynamic conversation at dinner parties, discussing the origin of place names in Minnesota might not be high on the list of topics that will engage your table guests and get you invited back.

So, what does one make of Climax, a small town in northwestern Minnesota? Like the Nimrods, Keisters and Fertiles of the state, Climax often finds itself the butt (sorry, Keister) of many a joke. What is the story behind the name?

If you’re one of the roughly 270 people living in Climax, then you surely don’t need an article like this to help inform you of who, or what, your town was named for.

For the rest of us, here’s a quick-dive into a few of our state’s more colorfully named towns.

CLIMAX, A PG-RATED EXPLORATION

The jokes about Climax are [insert your own punchline here]. Once you stop imagining a classic Jay Leno late-night talk show zinger, take a second to imagine where on Earth the name came from.

Climax, in literary terms, is the turning point of a story. If you are a student of the Greek language, Climax translates to κλῖμαξ and means “ladder,” or “staircase.” Finally, if you are an aficionado of spittoons, Climax is known to be an old brand of chewing tobacco.

So, which of the three is it? Popular belief is that Climax is named after a brand of chewing tobacco.

WHY CHEWING TOBACCO?

In roughly 1900, a sneaky, snaky outlaw by the name of Rufus Nephew was roundin’ up trouble in the desert southwest. Rufus was a cattle wrangler, finding cattle and driving them back to his place – regardless of their branding. Rufus had numerous run-ins with the law and became a bit of a legend as newspapermen began to follow his exploits. Rufus had a talent for escaping capture from the local sheriff’s jail by picking a lock. He even escaped while riding buck naked out of town. As the story goes, he also escaped after destroying evidence in a courtroom by stuffing a forged check in his mouth and spitting it in the judge’s spittoon.

photo of Climax Jim
Rufus Nephew, a.k.a. Climax Jim. | Source: True West Magazine

And as legend would have it, Rufus had a particular penchant for Climax chewing tobacco, also a favorite of baseball players of the day. His propensity of using the product earned him the nickname “Climax Jim,” and the newspapers ate it up.

Why Climax Jim and not Climax Rufus? Develop your own theories about this one.

Marshall Trimbelle, the vice president of the Wild West History Association, rounded up the following headline flaunting Climax Jim’s exploits: “Climax Jim is most easily the most slippery jail bird in the Southwest.” The headlines would nearly write themselves. His reputation was set.

Climax tobacco logo
Vintage signs for Climax tobacco are popular in online shops.

A LAW SKATING COWBOY MAKES SENSE. BUT A TOWN IN NORTHWEST MINNESOTA?

If anyone is going to carry a moniker inspired by a plug of chewing tobacco, it’s going to be a rough ridin’ cowboy. But this doesn’t even begin to answer the question of why a railroad town spittin’ distance from North Dakota and not far from the Canada border would do likewise.

Climax is not unique to Minnesota. Surprisingly 32% of states in the United States of America lay claim to their own Climax. People in 15 other states, including Iowa, Texas, South Carolina, Washington, Virginia, Ohio, Oregon, North Carolina, New York, Michigan, Kentucky, Kansas, Georgia, Colorado and Washington, all have a little sense of humor in naming a city Climax.

Climax welcome sign
Source: Canadian History Ehx podcast

Climax also has an international flare as the name of a town in Saskatchewan, Canada. The Canadian History Ehx podcast claims, “Climax, Sasketchewan was named by Annie, Fred and Christ Fuglestad, who came from Climax, Minnesota. As for that town, it was founded in 1896 and had its name from a chewing tobacco company. So in the end, by extension, Climax, Saskatchewan is named after chewing tobacco, but it is a name that has helped put the town on the map and in the public consciousness of the province.”

The mystery of who named Climax, Minnesota remains unsolved. But the reason why is clear: Someone who enjoyed a plug of Climax chewing tobacco thought northwestern Minnesota was far enough west to be “wild west” in nature. Since there are no rules in the wild west, why not name a sleepy railroad town Climax?

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This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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Want to keep reading about Minnesota towns with names that prompt all sorts of questions? Keep the factoids flowing in this piece about Nimrod, Minnesota – and prepare to go deep down the rabbit hole.

Love falling down the rabbit hole? Twin Cities Producer Kevin Dragseth has a keen interest in uncovering stories that are “tangentially Minnesota” in nature. In a recent historical adventure, he wondered: Can Minnesota lay claim to both King Kong and Super Mario? 

On that note, Minnesota did play a certain outsized role in the ever-so-uncomfortable-by-today’s-standards Indianist Movement, in which artists of all stripes appropriated Native American culture. Discover more about “Minnesota’s own grand racist opera.”